There were seventy-five of us, by my count. I might be out by a few. It was hard to keep count. Children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, spouses and partners. Seventy-six if you include Nana, in the middle of us all, in her coffin.
The undertaker, Patrick Larkin, had asked us to assemble in Gilroy at 12:45. And here we were, squashed together in the living room, where Nana lay in her coffin, and in the narrow kitchen off the living room, leading to the only bathroom in the house. Most of us had been here five and a half years earlier, for her 90th birthday party. But that had been a warm July day and we were spread out over her big back garden.
“How are your girls?” Angela asked me, as a gang of us stood shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen.
“Put that in the fridge,” Louise said, as she passed me a two-litre plastic container of milk.
I’d only closed the fridge door when Conor walked in. “Did anyone get milk?” he asked.
I took the milk back out of the fridge.
“I’m making tea for Dad,” Conor said. “Anyone else want anything?”
“I’ll have a coffee,” Antoinette said, taking an impossibly huge mug out of the press. I didn’t fancy her chances of getting through the funeral if she drank the fill of that.
“When did you get home?” one of the twins asked as she hugged me.
“One o’clock this morning,” I replied. “Declan Farrell picked me up from the airport.” I asked when she’d flown in, careful not to say her name until her sister arrived and I could work out which was which. This always happens when I haven’t seen my twin cousins for a while.
“Is this a queue for the loo?” David asked, as he walked into the kitchen, ushering his two young sons in ahead of him. He explained to his bewildered boys that all of us chattering women were his cousins and aunts. He hugged us each in turn as he directed the boys towards the toilet after their long car journey from Cork to Offaly.
“Oh my God,” Antoinette said. “Stuart looks like Ryan Reynolds.”
“Don’t tell him,” the twin laughed. “His head will explode.”
Antoinette told him anyway and he beamed and gave her an extra big hug.
I squeezed my way back into the living room. The other twin was there. She hugged me and told me what time she’d arrived home from England. She mentioned her sister’s name, so now I knew that this was Lisa and Joanne was in the kitchen. I hugged those cousins, aunts and uncles standing around me who I hadn’t already seen earlier in the morning when I’d been into Gilroy for a quieter moment with Nana. Martina’s three boys – all six foot something of them, and John’s girls, and James, looking surprisingly fresh-faced despite having just arrived in on a flight from Hong Kong. There were cousins and aunts on the chairs and the arms of chairs, and more standing squashed together like a Tokyo subway train at rush hour, except we were all family and everyone had hugs for everyone. Mugs of coffee and tea were precariously held and threatening to spill on our best clothes. We were loud and laughing, delighted to be here together, despite the circumstances.
I wondered would this be the last time we would all be in Gilroy?
Gilroy, the centre of our family universe. An unassuming terrace house on an unassuming street that was the beating heart of our family. And, at the centre of that universe was Nana, always in her armchair by the fire, always with a smile on her face, accepting us in at any time of the day or night, occasionally grudgingly, if we threatened to interrupt a programme or a football or hurling match on the telly or radio.
No matter what time of day or night you went in, there was sure to be someone else there. One or other of us always dropping in ‘just for a minute’ but nevertheless always having time for a mug of tea or coffee, a couple of biscuits, maybe a sweet or jelly from a bag or bowl on the coffee table in the middle of the living room floor.
It was the rare day that we went into town and didn’t drop up to Gilroy. When we went grocery shopping, Mass, a trip to the doctor or dentist. Always, up to Gilroy before or after. Pretty much every day of the 13 years I was in school, I walked over to Gilroy at lunchtime for a huge middle of the day dinner and a glass of milk, followed by a couple of biscuits or a slice of Nana’s homemade tart. In my 20s, she occasionally cooked dinner for me if I was working in Edenderry. I didn’t really like her food when I was a kid. In my 20s, I loved it. And always, there were aunts, uncles or cousins there. Always some of us dropping in.
I’d phone Mammy for a chat. “I’m in Gilroy,” she’d say.
“Jim and Marian are up,” someone would say. “Up” meaning up from Cork…and in Gilroy.
“Phil’s home,” meaning home from England…and in Gilroy.
“Liz is down,” meaning down from Dublin…and in Gilroy.
“Jim is over,” meaning over from Navan…and in Gilroy.
Up, down, over, home – all our shorthand simply meaning that we were in Gilroy. Half the time I’m not even sure we were visiting Nana. We were just being ‘in Gilroy’ because you wouldn’t be there more than a few minutes before someone else would drop in for a quick visit, a cup of coffee, a biscuit, a chat. I often wondered how much money Nana spent on tea, coffee and packets of biscuits each week.
And always Nana, sitting in the middle of it all, in her chair by the fire, smiling and laughing, telling us the latest gossip from the street, or the latest plotline of some soap opera she was engrossed in. And we carried on around her, feeling at home, sometimes the noise of our chatter so loud that we couldn’t hear each other. So, it was fitting that, on that day, most of us were there, and we were loud, and she was in the middle of it all one last time.
At 1.30, we started to move out. We formed two lines from the front of the house, out along the path, to the street. We stood, seventy-odd of us, joined now by neighbours and friends, as six of my uncles brought Nana out of her house on Gilroy for the last time.